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Broken bones, brain trauma and unregulated MMA: How New York is missing the point

The debate about regulating MMA in the New York Assembly is missing the point. Allowing unregulated MMA is endangering fighters.

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Adrion and Marwin square off in a tiny basement boxing gym in the Bronx. Adrion's femur is broken exactly six seconds later, snapped clean in half after a misstep and Marwin jumping on his back like an angry monkey. The crowd goes wild. Adrion grits his teeth and clutches his leg. It's February, 2012, and though this fight has taken place at an event dubbed the "Underground Combat League," that name is just clever marketing.

A loophole in the 1997 law banning professional mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts in New York has left amateur fights - where the competitors are unpaid - completely legal.

Completely legal but completely unregulated. So there is no doctor to tend to Adrion and stabilize his leg, nor is there an ambulance parked outside or any medical care whatsoever. Instead, the weekend warrior is put on a plastic folding table and carted to the back, where he writhes in pain for 25 minutes until EMTs arrive to strap him to a gurney and wheel him away. The fights go on in the meantime.

Go to an MMA event anywhere else in North America and you'll see a form of combat regulated by criteria set by the state. There will be trained referees and judges.

Competitors will be screened for pre-existing conditions and blood-borne illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis. Physicians will be present, gauging fighters' blood pressure and heart rate beforehand and stitching up their cuts afterwards. Female fighters will be handed a pregnancy test. But New York events have those things only if the promoter opts to pay for them, and a mere fraction do.

It's been three years since Adrion's injury, and still the law remains unchanged, a relic from a time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a reckless spectacle and proudly touted as bloodsport. It has, of course, evolved since those early days, and UFC events are regulated by athletic commissions nearly everywhere. That New York lags has more to do with the political enemies of Zuffa LLC (the owners of the UFC), a culinary union, and the rhetoric of legislators who think the UFC is all there is to the sport.

It isn't all there is, though. In 2014, despite there being zero UFC events in the state, there were 54 amateur MMA shows of various makes and models, which was an increase from 2013's total of 47. We're halfway through 2015 and there have already been 35, putting this year on track to beat previous years. No other state hosts more amateur MMA events. By sheer numbers alone, that means that nowhere else is it more dangerous for those who step into the cage.
Or costly.

When Bobby throws down at Kage Kombat's October, 2014 show at the City Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he's packing the kind of punch that's destined to smash things. 

And it does, as evidenced by the fractured orbital he inflicts upon his opponent. But Bobby breaks his hand pretty badly in the process - so bad that he requires reconstructive surgery on his thumb. When he approaches the promoter about insurance coverage, he's scoffed at. "If I bothered with insurance I'd be broke after every event," the promoter tells him, and since coverage isn't required by law if someone wants to put together some amateur fights in the cage - like it is in other states - Bobby is screwed when those medical bills totaling a few thousand dollars start arriving. For him, the repeal of that 1997 law can't come soon enough.

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As the biggest MMA promotion in the world, the UFC has long been the de facto face of the sport, a role they've used to spearhead the lobbying campaign that turned a banned athletic endeavor to one widely accepted throughout the world. New York is the lone holdout, the last pocket of resistance in a battle that has been going on for years.

They've had some successes. In March, the State Senate passed their version of the bill that would repeal the ban on state-sanctioned bouts, making this the sixth year in a row they've done so. That same week, a handshake-and-photo op tour by UFC champ Ronda Rousey garnered the female fighting superstar some face-time with Governor 
Andrew Cuomo (according to Rousey, he's now on board when it comes time for him to sign the MMA bill into law). The only stumbling block has been the State Assembly - the last necessary piece of the puzzle - and it's where opposition is firmly entrenched. It was assumed that the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in January and his replacement by MMA supporter Carl Heastie would've been enough to break up the log jam, but proponents of the bill still aren't quite there yet. They have the votes of 70 Assembly members; they need to get to 76 for the bill to move forward, it and must be done before the legislative session ends on June 17.

Talk has centered around economic impact. A study commissioned by Zuffa has New York benefiting to the tune of $135 million a year for the four annual UFC events that would occur statewide; the opposition, such as Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, has tried to downplay those numbers. In a recent interview with Crain's New York Business, she harped on credit ratings and a possible Federal Trade Commission investigation. 

"All of this calls into question the pie-in-the-sky economic promises the company is making if MMA was legalized in New York," she said.

In April, a group of Jewish leaders weighed in, blasting the UFC because Abu Dhabi owns a 10% ownership stake in the company.

But all the talk of money and keeping the UFC out of New York misses the point.

Fighters like Noah are the point.

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Noah tries his damnedest to take Bryce down, but Bryce is tall and lanky and stops each one like a brick wall stops a tennis ball and sends it back where it came from. 

Brick walls don't follow up with punches like Bryce does, though, and all it takes is one nasty hook and Noah is kissing the canvas. The referee jumps in. The fight is over. The audience within the Washington Avenue Armory, gathered here for this event in Albany, roars their approval. Noah gets back to his feet and his eye is a deformed grapefruit jutting out of his head. It's May, and the event is called Cage Wars.

Cage Wars is one of the promotions that gives a shit about safety, so there's a doctor present. He looks Noah over, and recommends that the fighter go to the emergency room for more care. Noah doesn't. Instead, he books another bout for next weekend. 

And the weekend after that. And the weekend after that.

If this had happened in New Jersey, which has been regulating amateur MMA since 2004, Noah would've been issued a 30-day suspension, been immediately sent for a CT scan of his facial bones, and wouldn't have been allowed to compete again until cleared by a board-certified ophthalmologist. After all, that grapefruit where his eye once means there might be a fracture there, and Noah could've suffered a concussion as well. 

Fighting seven days later could kill him.

Word spreads of the damage Noah sustained in his Cage Wars bout, so his subsequent fights fall through - no one wants his death on their hands. But relying on word of mouth and the consciences of promoters is a tenuous safeguard at best. At worst, it's a ticking time bomb that will detonate when a fighter slips into a coma after taking too many fights. Or sprays HIV-infected blood all over his opponent. Or dies because the industry-wide standards and precautions that should be in place are nowhere to be found.

Since the sport's inception in 1993, there have been eight deaths attributed to MMA fights worldwide. None have occurred in the UFC and none have occurred in New York, but of those eight, five happened in unregulated bouts.

Since New York has unregulated bouts in abundance, to miss the point when it comes to sanctioning MMA is to tempt fate.

Jim Genia has been writing about fighting in New York since 2001 and doesn't want to see anyone die. He tweets hereand blogs here.